France's Areva aims to scoop Sudan's 'underexplored' gold
France may not be a big hit in President Omar al-Bashir's Sudan, but a French firm is in pole position to scoop what industry sources say is the "underexplored" gold resources of Africa's largest country.
"The mining potential of Sudan is totally underexplored," said Nicole Blanchard of the Canadian group La Mancha, a subsidiary of France's Areva and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
"Sudan is an immense country in which there are surely other deposits of the same size as ours," chipped in a senior official of Ariab, which for the past 20 years operated the largest mine, in Hassai, northeast Sudan.
Ariab, a partnership between La Mancha and the Sudanese government, has a 30,000-square-kilometre (11,600-square-mile) concession, roughly the size of Belgium, in the Arabo-Nubian geological massif.
The mining ministry says more than 20 concessions have been awarded to prospectors, mostly between the Nile and the Red Sea.
But their combined output remains marginal compared to the Hassai mine, where 60,000 ounces (1,700 kilogrammes) of gold were extracted from Sudan's desert sands last year.
The thousands of panhandlers drawn by a gold rush in northern Sudan anger the mining industry. "Some of them are working on our concessions. It's unacceptable," said an Ariab executive.
Sudanese Mining Minister Abdelbaqi al-Jaylani travelled to France in mid-July and visited the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research in Orleans, to renew collaboration between Khartoum and the state body.
"We want to complete a detailed map of the geology of Sudan (with the bureau) so that the Sudanese government can commercialise its mining potential at the international level," Jaylani told AFP.
He also held talks in Paris with Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
"I told Mr Kouchner: 'Leave politics to one side ... You must protect your interests in Sudan, because if you stray from Sudan, others will come and take your place."
Paris has not had a good press in Khartoum with its support for the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for Bashir; the presence of a Darfur rebel chief in France, and French troops deployed in Chad.
But collaboration between the Khartoum government and Areva's subsidiary appears to be unaffected.
In late July, La Mancha announced "very promising" results of prospecting in the Nuba mountains, a politically sensitive region between northern and southern Sudan, which is due to hold an independence referendum in January.
"The mining potential of the Nuba mountains has been unexplored and the longstanding relationship between Areva/La Mancha and the Sudanese government should create a good environment for exploring the region," said Blanchard.
La Mancha has a 70-percent share of the Nuba mountains project, with the rest held by the Sudanese authorities. Drilling work next year aims to confirm the preliminary results.
© 2010 AFP